27 October 2008

"There are here hugely many interrelated phenomena and possible concepts."

First off, Brandom's Hegel course has started, and so his website has been updated with several handouts, sets of notes, and some new readings of parts of the Phenomenology by Brandom. I'm linking this at the top of the post so that I can remember to check it for updates; I have no idea how long the class website will stay up once the term ends.

For a similar reason, I've added links to the websites for various workshops to my sidebar. It's surprisingly hard to google up the Contemporary Philosophy Workshop's blog. (Incidentally, the Philosophy of Mind workshop is wonderful, and someone should update their blog. This year it appears we're reading various articles on referring to oneself -- so far we've read Anscombe's "The First Person" and Strawson's "The First Person and Others", plus an extract from "The Bounds of Sense". Finkelstein is great. Also at the last meeting a female grad student yelled "CHICKEN SEXERS!" at an inappropriate time. It is a good workshop!)

I just finished listening to the McDowell-Davidson interview again, and it's still good. I picked up on a lot of things that I'd missed the last time I listened to it. For instance, I'd missed the point of the chicken-sexing discussion here (or at least I'd forgotten it was about just this point). One thing that leaped out at me was that, in an attempt to get Davidson to see what his story was missing about perception & the first-person, McDowell opposed the thing he thought was missing to what is "discursive". Davidson was saying that he could see the guy behind the camera, but that there was a guy there was a belief he held, and he couldn't see what was missing from his story about perception, since it looked to him like there was just his being caused to form a certain belief, here. McDowell tried to draw attention to the fact that Davidson was talking in third-personal terms of himself, and mentioned that anything he could say that way would be "discursive". (He just said it as an aside, it seemed to me -- this part of the interview has McDowell struggling noticeably to find a way to put the point.) I had thought that the opposition between "intuition" (in the Kantian sense of what McDowell thinks Davidson needs to account for) and the "discursive" (in the sense of what's articulated) was something recent -- new to "Avoiding the Myth of the Given" -- but it's present in this interview, which (according to a citation in "Reading McDowell") is from 1997.

Recently I've been re-reading some of Davidson's stuff from the nineties, i.e. post-Mind and World, with an eye to making sense of McDowell's revisions to his views in "Avoiding the Myth of the Given". It's easy to miss just how subtle the issue of what McDowell thinks is wrong with Davidson's picture is.

Incidentally, I've finally gotten a copy of "John McDowell: Experience, Norm, and Nature" via ILL; some of the things McDowell says in his responses there do nicely resolve some of the things I found puzzling about the book's lead-essay; McDowell refers to "Avoiding" in several of his responses. For instance, from his response to Houlgate's paper, p.232/233

But [that sensory experience takes in that things are as they are represented to be by the sensory content of experience] does not eliminate the possibility of a position according to which we do not strictly see cars and trees. Sellars distinguishes what we see, as common ways of talking would have it, from what we see of what we see, the proper and common sensibles that what we see instantiates. For instance, when in ordinary speech we would say we see a car, what we see of the car is something other than the car itself, perhaps its colour, shape, and motion or lack of it. It would be possible to introduce a notion of what we see, strictly speaking, that coincides with this notion of what we see of what we, ordinarily speaking, see. And for some purposes it would be a useful notion. Houlgate cites Hegel[*] saying one can bring something's qualities before the eyes, but not the something itself. I think that belongs in this kind of context, not the kind of context determined by Houlgate's explication of Hegel's talk of 'positing'. What we see of what we see is not something taken in by our visual sensations, from which we would need to go on, in an act of 'positing', in order to arrive at something with the form of thought. In seeing what we see of what we see, our seeing is already informed by our conceptual capacities. What is in question here is a restriction, well motivated for some purposes, on what conceptually informed content can count as strictly speaking sensory content -- not a gesture in the direction of content that is not yet conceptually informed at all.

I think this sort of example is very helpful in making sense of Avoiding the Myth of the Given, since it gives another example of how McDowell wants to distinguish between the conceptual capacities he thinks are involved in the content of an experience (the common and proper sensibles) and those he doesn't (those involving recognitive capacities). I'm inclined to find this example problematic -- I don't think that "the car itself" is something other than what one sees when ("ordinarily speaking") one sees a car, except in the sense that there is always more to see -- more perspectives one might take in of the car, more ways one might view it. What one sees in the "color, shape, motion or lack of it" sense is just the color of the car, the shape of the car, the motion or lack thereof of the car. One might not see the car as a car, if all one sees of it is describable in this manner, but I still want to say it is the car that one sees. (If one's perception is of a "red thing", and a red car is what one is looking at, I don't see what could possibly be the object of one's perception if not the car. I suppose one could say "the paint on the car" or somesuch, but i) I'm inclined to count that as part of the car, and so perception of it is perception of the car and ii) this sort of answer seems to tempt one into saying things like "all we ever perceive are the surfaces of things", which strikes me as bad phenomenology.) Suffice to say, I think that the only reason to say "we don't strictly see cars or trees" is that one has been lead astray by philosophy.

(I remember this came up in the discussion of Boyle's "Sortalism and Perceptual Content" paper at the workshop last week, and he clearly thought the issue was a mess -- he wanted to avoid saying anything one way or the other (the example was whether one can see a beach when one looks at it, since after all there is a great deal too much beach to take it all in with a glance). The fact that McDowell doesn't seem to hesitate like Boyle did gives me pause. Incidentally, Boyle was great the second time, too. I've not yet finished this paper -- it's longer than the logic one was, and I'm tripping up trying to get through the ending sections. He mentioned in the discussion period that his paper is "programmatic"; perhaps that's part of why I'm finding it so damned hard to follow. I should probably read Evans.)

Perhaps I'm just reading McDowell with the wrong emphasis -- certainly there are some purposes for which a "restricted" view of what's sensed makes sense. (See PI section 11, especially p.196 on putting the "organization" of a visual impression "on a level with colors & shapes". To be able to say what stays the same when you see the duckrabbit shift from a duck to a rabbit, you have to draw some such distinction as this.)

More from PI section 11:
Then is the copy of the figure an incomplete description of my visual experience? No.—But the circumstances decide whether, and what, more detailed specifications are necessary.—It may be an incomplete description; if there is still something to ask.

This seems just right: An account of the content of an experience solely in terms of "common & proper sensibles" seems both an exhaustive account and to leave something out. ("And now just look at all that can be meant by 'description of what is seen.'")

At a minimum, McDowell's modification of Davidson needs to be able to distinguish chicken-sexing from perception -- this is just the thing McDowell used as an example of what Davidson couldn't account for, in the interview. It seems to me that McDowell's setting of "recognitive capacities" outside of the passive actualization of conceptual capacities which he conceives experience to be leaves seeing a chicken as a chicken on the same level as chicken-sexing. It's a belief which is causally formed by having the chicken in view, but there's no way to give a justification for the claim by appeal to anything which is given in experience.

"Here we are in enormous danger of wanting to make fine distinctions", says Wittgenstein; it appears to me that McDowell has succumbed to the danger in his limitation of what conceptual capacities can be involved in the content of an experience.

(It occurs to me that I still don't know what to do with the Thompson-inspired bit about "intuitional forms". I still need to finish "Representation of Life"; I set it aside when I had to reboot a while back, and haven't thought to finish it. I doubt it answers the object I put here, but perhaps it'll shed more light on what motivated McDowell's revision.)

*Houlgate's Hegel quotation is from Vorlesungen uber die Philosophie des Geistes, which doesn't appear to have been translated into English yet, so I can't tell if context changes its import. It sounds like the sort of thing I think Hegel shouldn't say -- it sounds to me like the sort of thing one would say in a reductio of the idea that what one is given in experience is "sensible qualities" of objects rather than the objects themselves. But Hegel says a lot of things in "Subjective Spirit" that I don't think are quite what he should have said; Houlgate brings a lot of them up, and McDowell spells out why he doesn't want to follow Hegel on those points. McDowell claims that holding on to a lot of Hegelian insights requires jettisoning some of the stuff Hegel says about (e.g.) what Hegel calls "sensations" and "intuitions", and I think he's right about that, for the reason he gives (among others). When reading "Subjective Spirit", the relation between "Thought" and the earlier chapters which referenced it (i.e. nearly all of the chapters in "Subjective Spirit") was often a bit mysterious; Hegel seemed to both insist that everything before "Thought" could only be on the scene when thought was (since the "content" of sensations/intuitions/representations was of the sort proper to thought -- only in thought did the form fit the content), but also allowed that it could be on the scene (in infants for instance) when thought was not. He also seemed to offer a psychological account of how thoughts were to be built up from representations (and representations from intuitions, and intuitions from sensations) through habits & various secret workings of memory, and that seems like that has to fall prey to the criticisms of the Myth of the Given. It's one of the thornier patches of Hegel's system. Lots of good stuff in there, though; definitely not like the "Philosophy of Nature".

14 October 2008

Update on Professor Callard

From e-mail:

Could you maybe add a post saying something along the lines of--"I talked to Ben Callard, and while his situation is clearly very serious indeed, he doesn't have a prognosis yet, so (to paraphrase Mark Twain) reports of his imminent death have been exaggerated."

Yes. Yes I could. I talked to Ben Callard, and while his situation is clearly very serious indeed, he doesn't have a prognosis yet, so (to paraphrase Mark Twain) reports of his imminent death have been exaggerated.

No doctor has said anything like "terminally ill", "inoperable", or "not long to live" (if any such thing is to be said, God forbid, it would be said at the prognosis, which is apparently due this friday). Professor Callard also says it's probably a a thyroma or a lymphoma, not lung cancer.

(I know I heard in the MAPH office that it was lung cancer, because someone doubted that Professor Callard "had ever had a cigarette in his life". The consensus in the room was that he did indeed seem like the sort of guy who has never had a cigarette.)

So, everything except "pretty bad cancer" was erroneous. I apologize for the errors.

The Callard children remain cute. I stand by that part. (And the rainbow-colored backpack/sling/wrap thing that the younger kid gets carried around in is adorable. Though it's the most impractical-looking thing I've ever seen; I have no idea how the kid gets in or out. Maybe it just looks complicated, and it's actually held together by velcro or something.) And the class was starting to get good; I'd heard a lot of uncertainties expressed about the course after the first class or two, but everyone seemed to like last monday's class. (And the post-doc that's currently teaching the class decided to skip to Frege, so I'm sitting in on it for at least a while longer*.)

But it's good to know I was wrong about the worst of the details.

*I'm really not sure whether this or Non-Deductive Inference is the course I should be registered for; I suppose being registered for NDI forces me to get out the door earlier on tuesdays & thursdays, which is good because the buses run more often then. It would feel weird to not show up for the analytic class, though. It felt weird to not show up to the Darwin class today, and I was mainly sitting in on that to see how many classes I could stand to sit through -- and I only missed it today because I had a doctor's appointment!

10 October 2008

Boyle's paper on Kant's logic is terrific

I am sick as a dog at the moment, but I managed to haul myself to the Modern Philosophy Workshop this morning. The paper was "Kant on Logic and the Laws of the Understanding", and it was very illuminating. Boyle's presenting a paper on sortals at the Contemporary Philosophy Workshop on monday; that also looks good, though I haven't read the paper for it yet.

Conant was at the workshop this morning, which was nice; he mentioned that the paper seems to slide between two sorts of oppositions: Kant's view of logic vs. Frege's view of logic and Kant's view of logic vs. the "post-Hilbertian" view of logic that Conant actually thinks is what you most commonly come across nowadays (he specifically mentioned Brandom, Belnap, and some other guy at Pitt that Boyle studied under). Boyle conceded the point, modulating the claim of his paper to the claim that Frege's view is an illuminating waystation between Kant's view of logic and the post-Hilbertian view which is not regnant.

I found the notion of a "post-Hilbertian" view of logic very agreeable, and the term is apt. The idea is that logic is a "purely prescriptive" science; you have the various axiom systems etc. and the question of whether a given system has anything to do with things like "truth" or "reason" or "inference" is a concern which is outside of the purview of logic. The parallel is of course to Hilbert's view about geometry: You have the various geometries that geometers study, and the question of which (if any) describe a physical space is not something geometry is concerned with. (I recall hearing that Frege wrote a letter to Hilbert complaining about this, and Hilbert basically rolled his eyes in response.)

I took a good deal of other notes, but I mainly wanted to just throw a post up before I forgot, and in case the paper isn't online forever. Easily the best paper on Kant and logic that I can recall coming across.

edit: Note the strikethroughs.On a jarringly unrelated note, newly-hired U Chicago professor Ben Callard is terminally ill. Cancer. He just found out, apparently; he held class on monday, and didn't seem that sick to me then. (He'd said he had a doctor's appointment right after class; he wasn't sure if he was going to end class early or what, since he really felt terrible. He did not end class early, and the general consensus was that the class was starting to take form and looked like it would be fun -- I know of at least three people who weren't enrolled in the class who were planning on continuing to sit in, just because the discussions were good -- including me. Callard was doing a good job leading the discussion, keeping it going interesting places, etc.) But, apparently he has inoperable lung cancer, and not very long to live. (The longest I heard was "less than a year". I won't repeat some of the things I heard, but I heard nothing good on this front. edit: Practically everything I heard on friday was groundless. See above post.) The Callards had their second child this August. Cute lil' guy. Suffice to say, today's news was horrifying, is horrifying, on all sorts of levels.

Friday was an eventful day.

06 October 2008

In Which I Wonder if I am "Out of Touch"

Because I am free to read and comment on the use that has no link (and because I am putting off reading Von Mises) I reread Hauerwas's article on Macintyre from "First Things". I was particularly struck by this passage early on:

To understand MacIntyre takes work. Indeed, he intends for it to be a daunting and challenging task to understand him. I suspect he assumes most of his readers, possessed as they must be by the reading habits of modernity, cannot help but refuse to do the work necessary to understand him. Which is but another way to say, as he makes explicit in the last chapter of Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, that those who think they must think for themselves will need to undergo a transformation amounting to a conversion if they are to understand “that it is only by participation in a rational practice-based community that one becomes rational.”
I immediately thought "But that's a truism!"

Perhaps I have an inordinate acquaintance with philosophy of the Wittgenstein/Heidegger/Hegel/Haugeland/Brandom/McDowell/Davidson/Rorty/Gadamer/Sellars... sort, where that sort of claim looks totally reasonable and not like the sort of thing anyone would stumble over. (Though "rational practice-based" looks pleonastic to me.) I suppose there are tenured philosophers who would think something like that claim is false.

Hauerwas apparently thinks that "academics" have some problem with this sort of thought, as do people who "think they must think for themselves". (It's not clear to me why he thinks this; I gather it has something to do with "capitalism" and with the ghostly things Yoder got himself so exercised about. Hauerwas seems to have some wacky ideas about "academia" generally; I suspect his own presence might distort how he sees things. I doubt things are as they would be otherwise when Hauerwas is looking around.)

On "thinking for oneself" I side with Hegel: No one else can think for me, as no one else can eat or drink for me, so I don't need to worry about "thinking for myself". If I think at all, I think for myself. Trying to do something above and beyond thinking, so that I might "think for myself", is liable to be a hindrance to thinking. But there's no harm in saying that everyone should think for themself, if all that means is that they should think instead of just parroting what they recall hearing once-upon-a-time. Though even this sort of "unthoughtful" behavior requires that one has become acquainted with thinking, for one must have some facility in discriminating among all the things one might parrot. So the injunction to think (for oneself) is always really just the injunction to think some more. Which is rarely bad advice.

Hauerwas seems to associate "thinking for oneself" with thinking from some Olympian height, removed from other people and from the tawdry affairs of humanity generally. But this is silly. If I am to think for myself, I should do my thinking where I am. Which is down here in the muck of history, with everyone else, enmeshed in all sorts of practices and norms and cultures and language-games and etc. -- if anyone is in a position to think for themself outside of all this, they aren't me. I'm right here.

When I see this sort of rhetoric employed by the likes of Hauerwas, I worry that the denigration of "thinking for oneself" is going to slide into an affirmation of "not thinking for oneself" -- of accepting dogmatically some "base" to "start thinking from". It's not clear to me whether or not Hauerwas (or Barth, or Macintyre) are guilty of this charge (though I have my suspicions). But I think this use of the rhetoric is a real worry in any case. The idea that we need to establish or choose a starting-point for thought strikes me as an egregious error -- if we are in the market for looking at possible "starting points" then we're already thinking, and so we don't need to find a "starting point" to think from, since that point is already in the past. Dame Understanding invites us all to come as we are to the Hermeneutical Circle-Dance, to put the point clumsily.

(The right response to "Whose justice? Which rationality?" is, I think, the same as the answer to "Which conceptual scheme?" -- to quote Putnam, "You want I should use someone else's conceptual scheme?" The joke being, of course, that a "conceptual scheme" is supposed to be something which is Given, and so not something one could pick up or discard. And the same holds for "rationalities" -- I can shift my standards for what's rational or not as it seems just to me to do so, but I can't discard my rationality and take up "something else". Indeed, I was surprised when I found out that Macintyre's book really does seem to take its titular question seriously.)

On not reading Macintyre: I've tried to read several of his works. I don't like his style, so the going is hard. At one point, it occurred to me that Macintyre sounds like he's peddling some doctrine which depends on the scheme/content dogma. So I checked his indexes to see if he'd ever mentioned Davidson. He had, and his discussion of him was so inept that I haven't looked at him since. (I think it was in "Whose Justice? Which Rationality?" but the book's not searchable on Amazon, and I don't own a copy.) I figure if I ever manage to get through "After Virtue" it'll be because I have someone beside me that I can constantly gripe to, to ease the pain. (It was how I got through all the Barth I had to read. Read him the night before class, complain about him during and after class, repeat. The trick is to have someone to complain to who doesn't dislike whatever you're complaining about -- otherwise the whole game is rather masturbatory.)

On an unrelated thematically relevant point, I've finally started reading Micheal Thompson's stuff. So far I've made it through the introduction of "Life and Action", and about a quarter of the way through "The Representation of Life". Definitely interesting stuff, and definitely wish I'd gotten around to looking at this stuff earlier. I do suspect that Thompson might be the source for some of the odder form/content distinctions McDowell draws in "Avoiding the Myth of the Given"; Thompson stresses in the introduction the formal nature of his project. Though it's a formality which doesn't "disregard the particular characteristics of objects". Which is an odd sort of formality. (I doubt that the success of Thompson's work actually hinges on its being "formal" -- certainly nothing he's said so far has struck me as wrong, apart from his self-characterization of his project. I'll need to read more to get a grip on what's going on, I'm sure; these are early impressions.)

P.S.: Haugeland opened up registration for the "Being and Time" course again, so I am a formality away from enrollment in the course. Hooray~

P.P.S.: The syllabus for Finkelstein's "Later Wittgenstein" seminar is online (in the Chicago system). They read chunks of PI, chunks of The Claim of Reason, two McDowell essays, Diamond's "Realistic Spirit" essay, and various things from Zettel. Didn't look too world-shaking. But they read a lot more Cavell then I would've guessed.